“My job now is to find the best human talent I can find to coach this club. I’m not in any rush to do that, because I haven’t really been thinking in those terms. I don’t know whether it’ll be by the draft or sometime in August, like New Jersey did. We’re going to take our time and get the right person.” -George McPhee, May 17, 2012
The Capitals find themselves in an unusual situation, without a head coach for the first time since 2002. This is also the first time Capitals General Manager George McPhee has not been the one to instigate the coaching change. When trying to decipher who George McPhee will hire next, it is important to remember that McPhee is not a man who makes rash decisions. He will take his time in finding a new head coach, but knowing McPhee, he knew Hunter might leave at the end of the season and has already been giving this some thought. There are several obvious candidates out there to dissect already, and Adam Oates is likely at the top of the list. In fact, McPhee seems perfectly willing to wait until the Devils' season is done before making his decision.
As a former player of McPhee's, a current NHL assistant coach, and a powerplay wizard, Oates has a strong McPhee-based résumé for a coach. From a "human talent" perspective, he could be just what the Capitals are looking for. First, let's take a look at the previous Caps coaches to get a sense of what McPhee is looking for. Next, we'll examine Adam Oates and how his qualifications fit into McPhee's image for a coach. Last, I will examine other potential coaches who fit the bill and could come to D.C. if Oates is not selected.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America
Since George McPhee was named general manager and Ron Wilson was named head coach on June 9, 1997, the Capitals have only had one instance when they were without a head coach for more than the 5 seconds it takes for the ink on a new contract to dry. After McPhee fired his good friend Wilson on May 10, 2002, he took 6 weeks to line up new coach Bruce Cassidy, announced as head coach on June 25, 2002. To date, Ron Wilson is the only coach McPhee has hired with prior NHL head coaching experience.
Bruce Cassidy was a talented hockey player whose career was cut short due to injury. He was a very successful minor league head coach for 6 seasons before McPhee tagged him for the Capitals job. To date, Cassidy is the only coach McPhee hired that he did not know personally before being awarded the job. Cassidy's major selling point with McPhee was his two successful seasons in the Ottawa Senators' organization, one of the best in the league at the time at drafting and developing talent. McPhee was obviously enamored of the Senators, as he acquired several players from the Senators over the next several seasons, including Joel Kwiatkowski, Ivan Ciernik, Brooks Laich, and Brian Pothier.
As we all know, the Cassidy experiment blew up in McPhee's face. After a dreadful start to the 2003-04 season in which McPhee traded his captain, Steve Konowalchuk, he finally fired Cassidy in December, immediately promoting assistant coach Glen Hanlon to the top job. McPhee was familiar and comfortable with Hanlon, not just from the season and a half as Caps assistant coach and the previous 3 seasons coaching the Caps minor league team in Portland, but from their four seasons together as teammates on the New York Rangers and two seasons together in the Vancouver Canucks organization. Besides just being a friend and a familiar face, Hanlon was everything Cassidy was not in the locker room. He was a thoughtful, respectful man who worked well with others and treated his players like family, often to a fault. Considering the roster explosion that followed, Hanlon was a good coach for developing younger players, particularly the ones he had already worked with in the AHL.
Like Cassidy before him, Hanlon's time ran out after a dreadful start to a promising season. McPhee fired Hanlon on November 22, 2008, and temporarily replaced him with then-Hershey Bears head coach Bruce Boudreau. It is important to note that Boudreau was interim coach for a month before his success earned him a more permanent title. Even though he had a stellar minor league playing and coaching career, Boudreau's familiarity with McPhee only extended back two previous seasons as the head coach of the Bears, but his success there and his familiarity with the recently promoted Capitals players were key aspects of his resume for McPhee. It is also important to note that Boudreau kept both assistant coaches all the way through their contracts at the end of the 2008-09 season. Boudreau's tenure was characterized by high-flying offense and lots of promise, but will be remembered for shorter than expected postseasons and a lack of accountability in the locker room. Ultimately, McPhee prefers defensive-minded coaches and teams; since he had been re-tooling the Capitals roster toward defense since the 2009 playoff exit, that meant Boudreau was not in McPhee's long-term plans.
After a disappointing start to the 2011-12 season, Boudreau was cut loose nearly four years to the day after he was hired. Once again, McPhee did not let his head coach go without already having a new coach lined up. The man McPhee hired, Dale Hunter, was an NHL legend and someone who commanded respect for his coaching work in the junior leagues. He was also someone that captained the Capitals for two seasons under McPhee, including the Stanley Cup Final run of 1998. After his retirement, Hunter spent the 1999-00 season as the Capitals player development coach, too, because McPhee saw his talents with younger players. At the press conference to announce Hunter's hiring, McPhee made no secret about how eager he was to hire Hunter. He cited Hunter's excellent playing career and he said he wanted Hunter to coach the Capitals for the last twelve years. He also took his time before pulling the trigger, saying he took a week to make the decision. There was certainly some foreshadowing before the coaching change, as McPhee called Hunter before the 2011 trade deadline to ask him about defenseman Dennis Wideman. McPhee also put a lot of stock into John Carlson's decision to play for Hunter in the OHL before coming to D.C.
Now that Hunter is gone, the short list of viable candidates that McPhee is likely eying up is topped by Adam Oates. The first qualification that Oates has that sets him apart from his competition is his college education. Oates played for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Engineers for three seasons before going pro in 1985, and he eventually earned his degree in management in 1991. Considering George McPhee was a 3-time CCHA All-Academic Team selection and got his law degree after retiring from the NHL, education is certainly a big plus. There's also the fact Oates was a two-sport professional, as he was a professional lacrosse player for a season, too.
If Dale Hunter was McPhee's ideal coach, Adam Oates can't be far behind. One of the best passers in league history during his 19-season career, Oates has the same kind of playing resume as his former teammate, Hunter. Neither man was very large or fast (Oates described himself as "deceptively slow"), but both had enormous hockey IQs. Oates' career totals are astounding, 1,337 games (48th all-time), 341 goals, 1,079 assists (6th all-time), 1,420 points (16th all-time). He was no slouch in the playoffs either, and while Hunter has the distinction of having played the most playoff games without winning the Stanley Cup (186), Oates has the most assists (114) and points (156) in a 163-game playoff career that included two Cup Finals and three Conference Finals, but no Cups. Oates also only had 415 penalty minutes in his long regular season career, an artifact of the clean, intelligent play McPhee looks for in his players. Aside from the classy play, Oates' trademark was his ability to make the players around him better. He was unselfish with the puck, great on defense and in the faceoff circle, and he excelled on all special teams and in all situations. His several nominations for the Lady Byng Trophy and consideration for the Selke Trophy attest to this.
After a couple successful seasons playing second-fiddle to Steve Yzerman in Detroit, Oates was traded to St. Louis and morphed Brett Hull from a pudgy 40-goal scorer into an 86-goal scoring star and league MVP. Upon his trade to Boston, Oates led an amazing powerplay and found new running mates in Cam Neely and Joe Juneau. He helped Juneau to one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time and Neely to an historically great 50-goals-in-49-games season. Starting from his last season in Detroit, Oates only found himself out of the league's top-7 in assists twice in 14 seasons, both times due to injury.
McPhee knows Oates from his seasons in Washington. McPhee inherited Oates upon his arrival, but certainly was happy to have him. Oates once again found his new running mate in Peter Bondra and set him up for a league-high 52 goals in 1997-98. He followed that up by leading the Capitals in playoff points in that Spring, too. Oates succeeded Hunter as captain in 1999 and spent the next two seasons wearing the "C" before giving way to Konowalchuk and Witt prior to the 2001-02 season. Oates was the focal point of the top scoring line, the power play, and excelled on the penalty kill in his time in Washington. Finally free from competing with Lemieux and Gretzky, Oates led the league in assists twice at the end of his D.C. stay. All told, Adam Oates recorded 363 points in 387 regular season games with the Capitals between Deadline Day 1997 and Deadline Day 2002. He recorded the second-highest single-season assist total in team history (69, 2000-01) and his 290 assists are 10th all-time, not to mention he recorded the highest playoff point total in team history (17, 1997-98).
There is some debate as to whether McPhee and Oates had a falling out during the end of his stay in D.C. Oates certainly had no illusions about how good of a player he was, and he had to have been unhappy with his role in the 2001 playoffs. Under then-coach Ron Wilson, Oates went from leading the league in assists on the top line int he regular season to third-line center behind young Jeff Halpern and aging interloper Trevor Linden, whom McPhee acquired at the trade deadline. It is interesting the Wilson took the "C" away from Oates before the next season, and McPhee traded him to Philadelphia at the deadline as the Capitals were stumbling through an injury-plagued season out of the playoffs. McPhee traded Hunter at the end of his stay, too, for another shot at the Cup, so the trade by itself doesn't mean anything. Let's not forget McPhee also fired the abrasive Wilson at the end of the 2001-02 season for what amounted to an accumulation of mistakes.
Familiarity and playing experience are great, but performance is better. Now 50 years old and in his second season as an assistant coach with the Conference Finalist New Jersey Devils, Oates has had a direct impact on the Devils' fortunes this season, particularly the power play. This season, Oates improved the Devils' power play from 28th to 14th, from 34 goals scored to 46, and from 14.4% to 17.4%. The Devils also have the best powerplay percentage of the remaining teams in these playoffs (4th overall, 20%), and the Devils eliminated two teams ahead of them. This conference final run, or longer, is certain to draw attention to Oates as a possible head coach from other teams, too, as a deep playoff run is a great résumé-booster. Even in Tampa Bay in 2009-10, Oates oversaw the 8th-ranked powerplay, which scored 63 goals and sported a 19.3% rate of effectiveness.
As for player development, there can be no small amount of attention paid to Oates' impact on #3 rookie scorer Adam Henrique. With #1 center Travis Zajac out with injury, the Devils' could have collapsed. Instead, they turned to an untested 21-year old with just 1 NHL game on his resume to anchor the top line, and it paid dividends. Henrique played most of the season on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and put up an impressive 16 goals and 51 points, keeping New Jersey in the playoff race. It is also a testament to Oates that Henrique finished second in rookie powerplay assists (8, just 1:38 PPTOI/G) and led the entire league in shorthanded scoring with 4 goals and 7 points. Before landing in New Jersey, Oates had spent the previous season as assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he helped Steven Stamkos go from a 23-goal rookie to a 51-goal sophomore with 24 powerplay goals.
The 2009-10 season in Tampa for Oates was spent alongside current Capitals assistant coach Jim Johnson. If Oates is comfortable enough with Johnson to keep him, this would give him an additional leg-up on the job. Keeping Johnson would not only be good for continuity in the locker room, but it is also important to note Johnson's effect on the Capitals' penalty kill, a major reason for the team's playoff success. One would think George McPhee would want to keep a coach like that on-staff. Consider also that assistant coach Dean Evason has worked for the last three Capitals head coaches, and he seems like a safe bet to stay on staff, too. As for the prospects for either Capitals assistant to get promoted, Evason has been passed over for head coach a few times and Johnson has limited NHL coaching experience. Neither are likely to be promoted.
Another obvious candidate is the Hershey Bears head coach Mark French. While the last two coaches who won championships in Hershey ended up in D.C., French is likely on his way out of the Bears and Capitals organizations altogether. Considering the growing systems disconnect between the AHL and NHL teams and McPhee's odd choices to keep certain players in D.C. instead of sending them back to Hershey,the Capitals seem to have lost confidence in Hershey, and that could be a big reason why Bears GM Doug Yingst hasn't signed the affiliation extension agreement. In all, it also doesn't seem as though French was able to keep together a fractious locker room through a trying season. French is not coming to D.C., and Bears assistant Troy Mann is likely to take over the reins in Hershey.
There are certainly other candidates out there. George McPhee could opt to complete the Capital coaching carousel and re-hire old friend Ron Wilson. Wilson was bumped from his Toronto job this Spring for ex-Caps assistant Randy Carlyle, who in turn was bumped from his Anaheim job by ex-Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. There are no Capitals that remain under contract for next season from Wilson's first stint in D.C., and he certainly has the resume to land another head coaching job. He would almost certainly bring his assistants with him to Washington. Who knows if Wilson will want to return or if McPhee will want him, but Wilson is very current with the NHL, and his teams, with the exception of the Maple Leafs, have had success in the regular season and playoffs.
Another possible coaching candidate is former Capitals captain Steve Konowalchuk. George McPhee traded Konowalchuk to Colorado prior to dismantling the entire team. After a 790-game career, the Mr. Everything, all hustle and heart Konowalchuk was forced to retire, ironically, because of a heart ailment in 2006. He joined the Avalanche as an assistant coach in 2009 under former teammate Joe Sacco and had a successful two-year run with the team, including coaching current Capital Matt Hendricks. Konowalchuk spent last season as head coach of the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds, McPhee's favorite junior league, where he compiled a lousy 25-45-2 record. The 40-year old Konowalchuk may need a few more seasons before he's ready to coach in the NHL, but he seems like a viable candidate otherwise.
Several other coaches are out there with solid coaching resumes. Considering McPhee has never hired a francophone for any position, it seems unlikely Patrick Roy or Bob Hartley would get the nod. In looking at Marc Crawford's career, his success has been tainted by the Todd Bertuzzi incident. That might not keep some NHL teams away, but McPhee hates cheap shots and is unlikely to take the risk. There are certainly other respectable NHL assistants and minor and junior head coaches who are worthy of a look, but unless McPhee knows them, they are long shots.
In the final tally, Oates has the smarts, experience, and resume to be an NHL head coach. He has all the intangibles McPhee likes, and he may well have the right combination of hubris and humility to work with McPhee while remaining adamant about his own ideas. Under Hunter, the Capitals gelled as a team and learned to play excellent tough, shot-blocking defensive hockey. It was obvious to those who watch the team the Capitals could be somewhat successful that way, but for most fans and the top players, it was a grinding style that limited the team's offensive chances. After all, the Capitals have extremely high-end talent that sets them apart, and Oates knows exactly what to do with that. Looking back, the one moment that defined the Capitals' season was the powerplay late in game 7 against the New York Rangers. The formerly high-flying Capitals were locked in another low-scoring, one-goal game. Down 2-1 in the third period, the Capitals' aggressive forwards drew a penalty, but the powerplay completely sputtered and it cost them the game and the series. Knowing how George McPhee likes to go about addressing weaknesses, like the powerplay, Oates is the right man for the job.